PTSD means chronic stress and tension. But we are aiming to regulate ourselves within the green and yellow area, not just the yellow. And that means learning to relax. Everyone needs this, but for trauma patients it can be harder to learn because it feels strange at first. We are not used to it. We need to put conscious effort into relaxation.
Some problems that might arise:
- relaxation might not feel safe, you feel like you need to stay hypervigilant to protect yourself
- thoughts might come up the moment you allow yourself to relax
- emotions might come up when you don’t numb them through constant action
- being in contact with yourself, body, thoughts, feelings, life might not be comfortable
- an inner critic might tell you that you don’t deserve relaxation
- it might trigger memories of things that happened when you thought you were safe to relax
- it might feel out of control and scary
- you might not know what to do with time that is not structured by actions
- you might not know how to relax
I am saying this not to scare you away, but to show you that your experience is normal and many others experience this too. That is the trauma speaking.
Relaxation isn’t easy, but it is necessary and it is a healing experience. It helps to start with a small period, just a minute, less if you feel that it is too much, more if you feel comfortable with it. Make it your goal to increase relaxation instead of relaxing completely.
Never try to relax in an environment that is not safe. Try these things when you are alone or in a safe group of people who do the same exercise.
Progressive muscle relaxation
The basic idea: you tense a muscle, then let go. The muscle will relax, usually more than it was before. You move through every major muscle group in your body, tense the muscles consciously, then let go and focus on sensing the relaxation. You support the effect with calm breathing. If done mindfully your thoughts will calm down as well. Emotions are a chemical reaction in your body. A calm body leaves no room for intense emotions. Research indicates that this technique is very helpful with anxiety.
If you do this regularly your body will remember the exercise and start to relax the moment you start tensing muscles. This can be a powerful tool to calm yourself down in public situations without drawing attention.
I recommend finding a YouTube video with instructions. Listen to it first before you try and make sure you like the way the instructions are given.
PMR includes a „body scan“ and focussing on parts of the body. Some find it triggering. You can always leave out certain areas if they feel uncomfortable. As with every exercise: modify as needed! A relaxation exercise is not the time to challenge your avoidance.
For this you use your mind to help your body relax. You use autosuggestion by repeating a certain formular in your mind that tells you that eg your arms and legs feel heavy and relaxed and comfortably warm. Your body will follow your mind and your emotions follow the body into relaxation. The more you practice the easier it will be. Instructions include body parts, but don’t go into that much detail. This is not hypnosis. You can stay alert and fully conscious while you think your body into relaxation. There is no magic involved. You don’t feel warmth because of a magic formular that creates warmth, you feel it because it is a sign of relaxation and you tell yourself things that are commonly felt when relaxed.
If you have DID it could be helpful to have everyone who is co-conscious repeat the formular with you so that you all focus on relaxation and nobody gets bored or distracts others. Those who don’t want to join you could spend some time in their Safe Place during the exercise.
There are instructions on YouTube for this as well. Again, listen first to see if you like them, then try.
This is a different approach that doesn’t focus on the body. It can give you a psychological break that will also have a relaxing effect on the body eventually.
While there are visualisations that are very practical tools to cope with flashbacks or difficult situations like the Safe Place, Containment, Storage for Worries or the Magic Store, there are others that don’t seem to fulfill any purpose, they are just meant to help you relax. Exercises like the Inner Garden, the Healing Pool or Grounding Trees. They all describe some kind of pleasant scenery where you can observe calming things, create, play, be safe and relax.
Imagery doesn’t have to take long. It’s not like there is something to finish like with PMR or an autogenic training script.
If you have DID you can invite all parts of you to join the imagery. You can all do different things in your scenery, depending on individual needs.
Again, you can find instruction on YouTube, and as always, you should listen to them first before trying. (We are working on more guided imagery here.)
Other options to reduce stress
- Qi Gong
- weighted blanket
- Deep breathing
- Essential oils
It helps to set aside a certain time of the day for your relaxation practice. Maybe it can become part of a routine.
You might find that you need to negotiate relaxation.
What do you do to relax? Tell us in the comments below!